Becoming Super Sleuths: A Visit to the Spy Museum in Washington DC

posted in: Blog, North America | 33
Killer lipstick
Killer lipstick courtesy of the KGB

Jess, aged 13, writes: Over the half term, our family became spies at The International Spy Museum in Washington DC. As we had heard that this was the best museum in DC, we were really looking forward to visiting the museum and learning all about the world of spies. Our hopes were very high, and luckily, we were not disappointed! In fact, we all think that the Spy Museum is the best museum that we have ever visited…

Upon entry to the museum, we found ourselves in a room which had lots of different profiles on the walls. Our mission: assume one of the identities of these people, remember all the details about their personal life, and get them all correct when we were tested on them. I became Sandra Miller, a 62 year old female clothes store owner from Chatsworth, Illinois. While mum, Robert, and I had remembered all of the details about our characters, dad couldn’t even remember his name (Dmitri Ivanov)!

Next, we watched a film, which told us all about what it takes to be a spy. It asked us if we were ready to become spies and sleuths, and we certainly were. We had our cover story memorised, and couldn’t wait to go into action.

After the film ended, we found ourselves in a really large room, which was the main part of the museum. This was absolutely massive, and there was so much to see and do. First of all, we went through “border control”, where we answered questions on the screen about our character. Some of the questions were about information that we had not been told, so we had to work hard to come up with the most believable answer. We all passed, and were given more information to memorise about the purpose of our visit, who we were meeting, and where we were going. This was lots of fun.

Mum, dad, Robert, and I all played a game where you had to assess if a situation was being monitored by a security system, hostile surveillance, or if you just happened to come across an unlucky break. We had to press the button we thought it was as quickly as we could, and Robert and I got very competitive! It was very exciting, and interesting to see how many obstacles a spy has to face to get around a place unnoticed.

We learnt about different spy techniques, such as swapping identical bags in a busy street, letting fellow spies know important information by leaving inconspicuous objects in public (such as gum or a cigarette packet), and leaving important documents in hidden places. We looked at pictures to try and find examples of these things, and mum and I spent a lot of time trying to find the right answers.

A pipe which can kill, as seen at the International Spy Museum, Washington
This object of destruction seemed very British

There was so much to do that I really don’t think I can list it all! Robert and I crawled through a ventilation shaft, and saw people standing around downstairs where we had been standing before. We learnt about how inventions in James Bond influenced real life spy tools, and saw the famous Kiss of Death lipstick-gun used by the KGB from the Cold War; it looked like something straight from a spy film! Other highlights were seeing a Bulgarian umbrella (just like the umbrella used by the KGB in 1978 to assassinate Georgi Markov with a poisoned pellet), and the postbox that notorious CIA double agent Aldrich Ames used to secretly communicate with the KGB. You can see some of these in the video we made of our trip in DC (below).

Another highlight was two videos showing how effective disguise can be. We were shown two people, and had to spot and arrest them when they were among other people. The first video we watched was set in an underground station, and we didn’t manage to get the correct person the first time. We chose the right person the second time, but this was after clicking on every possible person and consequently arresting everyone in the station! This was amazing – the man we chose looked nothing like the man with the large brown beard that we were trying to find. Mum and I also enjoyed the video afterwards that showed us how these people had been made up to look entirely different. We must have spent over an hour in this room, watching videos, listening to audio clips, and being shocked and fascinated

Next, we walked through an exhibit all about spies and codebreaking in the olden times. We learnt about how it played a part in the American Civil War, and how Mary, Queen of Scots, wrote in code about her plan to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I. We found out about spies in Berlin during the Cold War, and I was particularly fascinated by the story of Joan Pujol Garcia, a double agent for the Allies who gave Germany false information during World War II.

Results of the spying challenge
Jess passed the test with flying colours (unlike her parents!)

When this exhibit was finished, we were tested again on our secret personas. While mum and dad failed completely and were caught, Robert got out of the country but “needed some extra training”. I, on the other hand, passed with flying colours, and may have gloated a bit too much to the rest of the family…

The museum’s temporary exhibition entitled: “Fifty Years of Bond Villains” was amazing. I loved watching the videos, and thought that the parallels between the first Bond film (Dr. No) and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 were astonishing. We saw lots of props from the Bond films, entered Blofeld’s lair, and laughed at mum when she screamed (remarkably loudly) at a “shark” that came through a screen. There were lots of games to play, including defusing a “bomb” (only dad succeeded), holding onto a bar for as long as possible, and trying to stop your opponent from working out a secret code. This was brilliant, and I definitely want to see Spectre now!

Detonating a fake bomb
Only Brian could safely defuse the bomb…

One of my favourite parts of the museum was found in the James Bond exhibit. It was a collection of films, entitled “My Bond Moment”. These were films narrated by retired spies, recalling times when they found themselves in a situation that could have been a scene in a 007 blockbuster. It was so interesting and unbelievable to think that they attempted these things, and mum had to drag me out afterwards. You can watch the videos here, and I highly recommend you do so.

We rushed through the end of the museum as we had to meet family, but it was still fascinating. The last part was centred around the 21st century, and we learnt about what would happen to America if the electric grids went down. Next came the massive shop which was packed with cool games and memorabilia, and before we knew it, it was time to go.

We must have spent over three and a half hours in the museum, and we definitely could have stayed for longer. I genuinely don’t have a bad thing to say about it, as it was so unique, there was so much to do and see, and it was perfect for all the family. I thing that it is a must do if you are in Washington DC, and I would happily go back again!

Disclosure: The Spy Museum is free for under 6s and costs $14.95 for ages 7-11. Over 12s cost $21.95 each. We were fortunate to be gifted tickets in order to write about our experience. However, there was no input or suggestions about what we should write.

Read about our trip to Washington

We flew to Washington via First Class – read what it was like.

We love writing this blog as a family and would love it if you would please vote for us in the UK Blog Awards. You can vote up to December 19th 2016 and it literally only takes 30 seconds. Just follow this link. And thank you!!


33 Responses

  1. Erin Buhr

    This place looks awesome. It is going on my list for when my twins are a little older. We had a blast when we visited DC but my kids were only 3. I would love to go back when they are older as well.

    • Sarah Ebner

      It was so good! They would definitely be too little at 3, but I think maybe from around 8 upwards. There’s loads to do in DC, but this made such an impression!

  2. Cathy (MummyTravels)

    This is actually top of my wishlist for whenever I finally do visit Washington – I know there are far more significant places in the city, but this has totally captured my imagination. From the review, it sounds even better than I thought it would be. I suspect I would be just as competitive too. Just need someone to watch my daughter, or to wait half a dozen years I suppose!

  3. Kirsten

    Everyone I know raves about this place. We have’t been with our kids yet, but I know it is a must see the next time we visit. Looks like a great place for the afternoon!

  4. Ting at My Travel Monkey

    Oh my, this looks like the best place to visit. I’ll be heading straight here if I ever get to Washington. Right up my street… I’ve always fancied myself as a spy. Although I can see my husband also forgetting his alias name. I can’t believe there is so much interactive activities and topped off with Bond Villians. I am very jealous!

  5. Christine

    This sounds amazing. I love the way you’re immersed into the museum by choosing a spy identity, great fun. I’ve never really thought about visiting Washington before but it’s certainly tempting now!

  6. Globalmouse

    This looks absolutely brilliant and would be my 8 year old’s dream to visit!! I can feel I’m going to have to plan a trip to Washington DC now….!!

  7. Chanel | Cultural Xplorer

    I definitely need to get back to DC in the near future – I think there is so much cool stuff that I have to explore that I haven’t seen since my last visit back in 2012. The Spy Museum definitely sounds like it is an interesting place to visit! 😀 Thanks for sharing your experience and I cannot wait to get down to see it!

  8. Jaime Nicole

    Wow, that puts a whole other spin on the phrase “killer lipstick!” We love Washington DC but have never made it to the Spy Museum. I will definitely have to put it on our must see list next time we travel there – it looks like a ton of fun!

  9. Carmy

    Oh this is SO cool! I actually took a history course of the history of espionage and was SO excited when all the spy movies came out during summer/fall (mission impossible, bridge of spies, Man from UNCLE, etc). I would love to visit. And BOND VILLAINS?! I’m in haha

  10. tammileetips

    I have been to DC a couple of times and have not seen this before! I love visiting museums like this; it’s always fun to explore new ones. I would love the bonds exhibit sounds like fun.

  11. Cameron

    Love it! Adding it to my list. I feel like I could be a total kid again in that museum, and I love James Bond. How about the poisoned bullet umbrella!? Didn’t they have any shoe phones? 😉

  12. Heather Cole

    Now this sounds like what a museum SHOULD be like, fun! I wanted to be a spy when I was younger (my first job interview was to follow in James Bond’s footsteps!), some great tips here! If you’re ever in Berlin go and visit the Stasi Museum, they have things like fake toothpaste tubes and other spy gadgets. So cool!

  13. Lori Bosworth

    The International Spy Museum in Washington sounds amazing! I like that you have to adopt a distinct personality and it would be fun to learn different spy techniques. I would definitely want to check this museum out the next time I visit Washington.

  14. Tiffany

    How amazingly cool is this!?!? I would love to visit this museum and the gadgets…these are things I thought only existed in movies. It’s cool to see them in real life (sorta speak)…thanks so much for sharing your experience.

  15. Jolanta | Casual Traveler

    What a great report about the Spy Museum! Thank you! We skipped it when we visited Washington, D.C. since we only had a few days and chose other museums to see first, but your article makes me think my family might like it as well (though we are not into Bond movies). In any case, it is an important piece of history as well, and I’m always for learning history.

  16. kirstie

    The 007 moments in real life sound ace. I’d love to listen to them. Maybe I will have to take myself off to Washington. Don’t tell anyone I told you! But do tell your mother to swot up on spy stuff or she will never get to look like Judy Dench in later life.

  17. Monica

    I was going to ask how long you spent there but then I got to the end and found my answer – I’m not surprised you stayed over three hours because it seems like a lot of fun! I’ve never even heard of the spy museum and I’d be happy to visit it one day!

  18. E Camp

    Our family is planning a trip to DC this summer from our home in Texas and came across your blog. We just read through several posts together about your visit; we especially appreciate the review of the Spy Museum and my girls are very eager to add it to our list of “must see” sights. Thanks so much for sharing your wonderful reviews!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *